(Mary Lawlor is executive director of Front Line , the international Foundation for the protection of Human Rights Defenders, based in Ireland )
Plan to introduce new Legislation requiring NGOs to register with the Cambodian government before they can commence operation could disrupt the defense of human right
Around the world, the space for human rights defenders is shrinking as repressive governments harass, intimidate and attack them as they peruse their vision of a better world based on human rights for all. A recent trend has been for governments to introduce restrictive registration practices to sink civil society in a sea of bureaucracy and stifle the spirit of dissent.
Front Line Believes NGO staff working as key agents of social change depend on the support of their communities and the general public, which, in turn, is based on trust. To hold that trust, human rights defenders and the organization must be seen to operate in an open and transparent way. Equally, governments are within their rights in seeking to regulate the voluntary sector. However, increasingly we see repressive governments using the language of transparency and accountability to introduce restrictive legislation, the primary purpose of which is to limit the capacity of civil society to challenge such governments and hold them accountable for their misdeeds.
In October 2009, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya (Uganda) , called on states to do away with laws that required NGOs to register before they could operate.
She was concerned states were increasingly using security and counter-terrorism laws or more “subtle means,” such as the judiciary and public administration, to restrict, disrupt and in some cases “ completely eliminate” the work of civil society.
Cambodia is the latest in a long list of repressive governments seeking to introduce such legislation, a list that now includes Russia, Sundan, Saudi Arabia, China, Belarus and Iran. The draft legislation currently before the parliament of Cambodia proposes to introduce compulsory registration for all NGOs before they can carry out any public activities. The registration process would impose a severe administrative burden on human rights organizations, especially small grassroots groups and informal community networks. Human rights defenders fear the vaguely worded provision of the law would be used to harass and intimidate them. This is Consistent with the international trend of governments seeking to discredit and criminalize the legitimate work of civil society.
While this draft law would have a significant negative effect on the work of domestic NGOs , it also impose on the international NGOs the condition of “collaboration with government ministries in the planning , monitoring, implementation and evaluation of their project ”. It is feared the existence of this vaguely worded provision will effectively give the government the power to veto over any NGO activity.”
Front Line is concerned that that if this legislation is passed in its present form, we will see a pattern of repression emerging in Cambodia whereby the process of registration is made so difficult that genuine human rights defenders will be unable to register their organization and can then be prosecuted for failing to register if they continue their work unofficially.
Under the international law , NGOs are guaranteed the right to Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Association . It is their legal right to campaign for the protection and promotion of human rights and, while the state has an obligation to prevent criminal activity, such concerns are already adequately addressed under existing legislation. The inescapable conclusion is that the purpose of this legislation is to block the legitimate work of civil society. Front Line has addressed its concerns to the government and is calling for the review process to be extended so these concerns can be addressed in collaboration with NGOs. There has already been significant erosion of freedom of expression in Cambodia over the last year, a trend that can only be exacerbated by this unnecessary and oppressive piece of legislation.
Credited : Southeast Asia Globe,Feb 2011